Intro to Designing a Modular Environment Masterclass
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Intro to Designing a Modular Environment Masterclass
5 July, 2018

Brian Recktenwald from Naughty Dog introduced his new ArtStation Masterclass devoted to creating modular environments with UE4 and Photogrammetry. 


Hello, my name is Brian Recktenwald. I’m an environment artist at Naughty Dog. Since our last conversation, my life has been busy both personally and professionally! I got engaged to my girlfriend and shipped Uncharted: Lost Legacy with our amazing team at Naughty Dog. I was also fortunate enough to travel around the world giving workshops and talks with Gnomon in Australia, at GameFest in the Philippines and at Level Up KL in Malaysia. I’m currently working on the much anticipated The Last of Us Part II and trying to squeeze small personal projects out when I can.

Previous interviews:

Artstation Masterclass

I’m am going to be an Instructor for ArtStation Masterclasses 2 – Games Edition on August 6th. My class is Designing a Modular Environment using Unreal going over the entire creation process of an environment including reference gathering, blockout and modular asset creation, some photogrammetry techniques and finally assembling a small subway environment with some supernatural elements in Unreal.  

This course is a high-level walkthrough for designing and creating a modular environment for games with a focus on techniques and approaches for getting the very most out of a few assets. We’ll be going over the use of trim texture sheets for rapid 1st pass texturing and then finally assembling a small section of a subway environment in unreal (Unreal) using real-time lighting. This class will be just under 3 hours and people should be able to see the approaches I take, along with tips and techniques I use when constructing an environment like this.

Workflow Benefits

Modular workflows save time and money and have been around since the beginning of game creation. I first dove into the deep end of this method while working at LucasArts where sci-fi lends itself extremely well to modular design. While many of the techniques I’m using are industry staples, I’m looking to share some personal techniques and insights I’ve gained over the years. 

As for photogrammetry, it will be used minimally in this project only for a few minor assets like trash and some other organic assets. In general, I feel that natural environments lend themselves more to photogrammetry/scanning applications. Overusing public libraries can definitely make things look homogeneous. That’s where bringing in your own scans can help add separation and a unique personality to an environment. If the visual goal is photorealism (or motivated by it), especially for natural scenes, then photogrammetry is an excellent technique to use as lighting, mood and integration can dramatically change the feel of the assets, even though in isolation they may all feel similar in “style”.

Blockout Approach

Everyone has their own method but I prefer to block everything out in Max/Maya first and then iterate on them in a back and forth process in the editor/UE4. The key is living on the grid and getting a placeholder/footprint for everything you will need to complete the space with. Silhouette and volume are key at this stage along with establishing consistent pivot points. I’ll hold off on set dressing, details, etc. until the foundation is solid and I test out how everything snaps in both Max and UE4. I’ll add a bit more detail to the blockouts and even get some first pass lighting/atmosphere to help sculpt the feel of the space before starting on final modeling and UVs. In the case of this class project, we are going to be using trim sheets done a bit old school using photos. It saves time and allows one to plan out creating them later with Substance Designer or 3D modeled/baked.

Asset Goals

I’d say we’ll have to create about 30 models and 5 sets of trim/tileable textures (mostly very simple) to complete the scene. We’re going to start with the walls, ceilings and floors for a subway tunnel, then the bends required and then move onto the loading area of a station (with some supernatural infestation). Then we’ll move onto secondary and tertiary details such as pipes/conduits and some props. We are going to use world space variation in the shaders in Unreal, along with vertex painting to get variation among the modules. To ensure everything fits/snaps together we are going to live religiously on the grid for blocking in and making all the assets. 


One big problem that I still encounter is the feeling of being overwhelmed with the assets that need to be made and the detail that will eventually be needed. For me, planning and starting with one thing at a time (the most important one first) tends to be my guiding mindset that gets me through the process.

Another problem is connected with working in a modular way: it can be seen as constricting and rigid. This is sometimes the case, but when done right, it allows you to populate a space very efficiently with higher speed, and also works better for performance with most engines. Also, without proper material variation, set dressing and lighting, the environment can become very repetitious and monotonous if not utilized correctly. Creating environments takes time no matter what technique is used, but I feel having a real-time render such as V-Ray Next or Redshift open throughout the whole creation process allows you to see where it’s going at a higher fidelity until you get the assets into Unreal. Also, learning and experimenting with new tools, finding shortcuts along the way, and having a few movies or music related to the space you’re making on in the background help pump up the creativity and excitement for creating the environment. 

You can sign up for the course over at Artstation.

Brian Recktenwald, Environment Artist at Naughty Dog

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev


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Chris Sims
Chris Sims

I’m super excited for this class. I’ve had a hard time truly grasping the modular workflow, and while there are a few great tutorials out there, I’ve been waiting for something more in depth like this to come along.

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